Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Good News Doesn't Make Everyone Happy, Part 1

by Rev. Dr. Tim Moore

Our story today tells us of Jesus’ return to his hometown of Nazareth [Luke 4:16-30], of how he went to his childhood place of worship and how initially the people were amazed at the changes in him, but how ultimately the reunion ended badly. Thomas Wolfe, the popular North Carolina novelist, once wrote, “You can’t go home again.” And that was the hard truth Jesus experienced that day.

Jesus has just started his ministry; he hasn’t even selected disciples yet, according to Luke. He was preaching in villages all over Galilee and the verse just before our passage today says, “He… was praised by everyone.”

By the time he returns to his hometown; people have already heard the rumors about Jesus and he is asked to speak in their synagogue, in his childhood house of worship. No doubt his mother, Mary, was as proud as she could be that day. His brothers and sisters and their families were there to witness their brother’s return, I’m sure as well. His neighbors and playmates. His teachers and mentors.

At the appointed time in the service he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He stands and reads: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

Good news. The Spirit of the Lord anointed Jesus to bring good news.

Everybody likes to hear good news. We want to hear inspiring sermons, idealistic speeches, messages of hope, stories of a bright future. We want to believe that things will be better, if not for us, then for our children and grandchildren. Everybody likes to hear good news.

Jesus said he’s been anointed to bring good news to the poor; that he’d been sent to proclaim freedom to those who are captive, to give sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s Jubilee.

This is lofty good news, inspirational good news. Freedom for those who are captive. Sight for those who are blind. Freedom for those who are oppressed. Forgiveness for those who are debtors. This is good news for the poor!

And who could not wish freedom for those who are oppressed? Who could not wish for sight for those who are blind?

It is not surprising that Jesus’ hometown folks spoke well of him upon hearing his words. Who could not wish for such good news?

Everybody likes to hear good news in the abstract. We dream of peace on earth and of all peoples treating each other like sister and brother. We proudly proclaim our nation’s ideals that all are created equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Is there a person of good will in America, today, who would denounce Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” speech?

When he said, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” who could oppose such a hopeful vision.

The problem with lofty ideals, with inspirational messages, the problem with good news is that it has to be lived in the real world in order to make a difference. They look pretty on paper; they sound wonderful over a speaker system, but if all we do is admire them like artwork at the Mint Museum or the Harvey Gantt Center they haven’t fulfilled their purpose. And the problem is that when we take lofty ideas and noble good news and try to live them out in everyday life they get messy.

Jesus said he’d been anointed to bring good news to the poor. This is all well and good, people will say, as long as this doesn’t mean bad news for the rich.

Jesus said he’d give sight to the blind. This is all well and good, people will say, as long as this doesn’t require us to give up something to help him.

Jesus said he’d been sent to release the captives and bring freedom to the oppressed. This is all well and good, people will say, as long as this doesn’t mean that the oppressors might have to sacrifice their privilege.

Jesus said he was coming to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, meaning the year of Jubilee, the year when debts are forgiven. This is all well and good, people will say, as long as we’re not stuck with the defaulted loans.

Everyone is for good news as long as it doesn’t cost him something. Everyone loves inspirational speeches as long as she doesn’t have to sacrifice anything. Everyone admires noble ideas as long they favor his people and not the other people.

When the townspeople found out that Jesus’ gracious words and amazing speech wasn’t going to favor them and in fact would bring good news to their enemies, they quickly turned on him. Drove him to the edge of town to hurl him off a cliff.

Noble ideals usually come with a cost. Good news when you try to live it out doesn’t make everyone happy.

While nearly everyone loves Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the same cannot be said of his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” or of his sermon, “A Time to Break Silence,” which he preached on the Vietnam War exactly one year before he was assassinated.

In the Birmingham letter, King said that he had almost reached the conclusion that the greatest stumbling block to Civil Rights was not the Klansman, but white moderates who were more devoted to “order” than to justice. “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Pointing to the hundreds of steeples in Birmingham King continued, “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon [African-Americans], I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities… I have looked at her beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward… Over and over again I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?... Where were they when Governor Wallace gave the clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when tired, bruised and weary [black] men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?’”

There is no good news that hasn’t first been carried on a cross. Good news when you try to live it out doesn’t make everyone happy.

Part 2, the conclusion, will be posted on Thursday. Tim Moore is pastor at Sardis Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. This series was adapted from a sermon Rev. Moore delivered on January 31, 2010. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro and Winston-Salem sit-ins of February 1960, where black and white students sat at Woolworth's lunch counters and refused to move. Let us take this time to renew our committment to social justice as an outward expression of love for our neighbor.

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